THE moment Donovan walked into his home, carrying Eve and flanked by Travis, who had hovered the moment they exited the plane, Cammie launched herself from Sophie’s lap where they’d been sitting on the sofa and ran toward Donovan and Travis.
Travis immediately scooped her up, hugging her fiercely, but Cammie’s gaze was fixed on Eve, her eyes rounded in fear.
“Evie?” Cammie whispered. “What’s wrong with Evie?”
She glanced at Donovan, tears filling her big eyes.
“She’s okay, sweetheart,” Donovan said, hoping God forgave that lie. “She’s just sleeping. She’s very, very tired and we must let her rest.”
Maren walked forward, her forehead creased in concern.
“Not here,” Donovan said in a low voice. “I’ll take her in the bedroom.”
As he spoke, he glanced toward Sophie, sending her a silent message to distract Cammie.
“Stay here with Cammie,” Donovan said to Travis. “She needs the reassurance. I know you’re worried about Eve, but Maren will see to her and I’ll let you know the moment anything changes.”
Travis didn’t look happy with the dictate, but he didn’t argue. Instead he turned on a bright smile for Cammie.
“I missed you, little bit. How about we go play with Cece and her toys?”
Cammie looked doubtful, but at Donovan’s urging, she complied and slid from Travis’s grasp only to grab his hand and tug him toward the makeshift play area Sophie had constructed for the girls.
Donovan quickly carried Eve into his bedroom and gently laid her on the bed. Her eyes were closed now, where before they’d remained open and vacant. Lifeless. Utterly lifeless. But now she slept, and he found more comfort in that, that perhaps she was at peace for a few moments at least, than for her to be awake and unaware, in some private hell that only she could feel.
He’d take it from her in a heartbeat. He’d take her pain, her suffering, her grief and anger and he’d shoulder it all if only he could have her back. Whole. The Eve he knew and had grown to love more fiercely than he’d imagined ever being able to love a woman.
He knew love existed. He knew it was a precious thing indeed. He saw how his brothers and his team leaders were with their wives. But did they feel the all-consuming emotion that Donovan felt? Could what he felt possibly compare to what his brothers shared with their wives? He found it hard to believe, but he supposed his brothers would argue that point. They’d all take on whatever hurts their wives suffered. They’d die for them with no hesitation. There was no sacrifice too large or too difficult to make for them.
Love was a multifaceted, painful, joyful, fulfilling and frightening-as-hell thing.
It made a man vulnerable. It opened him up to unimaginable hurts and agony. But it also gifted him with something more powerful than anything else in the world. The love of a woman was the most precious gift a man would ever receive. And Donovan would never take it for granted. If he was able to win Eve back, win her trust and her love, he’d treasure it forever. And he’d never give her cause to doubt him again. If it took the rest of his life, he would make up the hurt he’d caused her.
Maren was reading over the medical reports they had taken from the hospital, her frown deepening the more she read. Then she tossed aside the papers in disgust and went to Eve’s bedside, doing a thorough examination. She gently pried open Eve’s eyes and shone a penlight, checking her pupils. Then she took her vitals, listened to her respirations, counting them silently, her lips moving, the only sign that she was keeping count.
When she finished she sighed and turned to Donovan.
“They’ve turned her into a vegetable,” she said, her eyes shiny with tears. And hatred. “Skylar told me of the journal that was found in the cabin and Walt’s entry that he planned to punish Eve if she resisted his advances. If she refused his plans for her. In an odd way, he found the idea of forcing himself on her repugnant. The asshole thought Eve should feel honored that Walt wanted her in his bed, as his mistress. So if she resisted, and it’s obvious that she did, he planned to institutionalize her for a time. Keep her heavily sedated and then he’d visit after she had time to come off the medication and be lucid enough to choose. Continued existence as a lifeless vegetable in restraints. Or agree to his demands to share his bed and allow him to control every aspect of her life.”
“He was deranged,” Donovan bit out. He was seething with fury, but at the same time he was grateful that she hadn’t been sexually abused. Not that the abuse she’d endured was somehow better. But at least she hadn’t been physically harmed.
“In some ways this is worse than if he’d raped her,” Maren said quietly, accurately reading Donovan’s thoughts. “He didn’t rape her body, but he very much raped her mind. He robbed her of her choices, her sanity. He stripped her of everything. Her self-worth, her very being. I truly believe she may well have recovered sooner from a physical rape than she will from this kind of rape.”
“Will she recover?” Donovan asked hoarsely. “What did they give her, Maren? I need the truth here. Don’t go easy. I need to know. Did they damage her mind permanently? Will she ever be normal again?”
“Sit down,” Maren said gently, pulling at Donovan’s arm until he sat in the chair by the bed.
“They kept her heavily drugged, from what I’ve been able to ascertain, and believe me when I say this was no legitimate medical facility so the records are spotty at best and vague. They gave her psychotropic drugs at regular intervals. Far too regular. Four times daily, and she was already heavily drugged when she arrived. Some medications like Thorazine have a longer half-life, and it could take days to fully rid her body of its effects. If we got lucky and they gave her a drug with a shorter half-life, it’s possible she’ll come around sooner. There’s simply no way to know.”
She paused as if to let her diagnosis settle in. Then she continued, her eyes filled with sympathy as she stared at Donovan. She reached for his hand, squeezing it, offering comfort.
“There’s also the factor that she may not want to come back. That maybe she’s retreated to a place where she feels no pain, no betrayal.”
Donovan flinched, and the blood drained from his face.
“I don’t say this to hurt you,” she said. “But it has to be acknowledged. She thinks you betrayed her. She thinks that you don’t love her and that your only concern is for Travis and Cammie. In a way, the drugs were probably a blessing to her because it numbed her. She isn’t feeling anything. She doesn’t know anything. She isn’t cognizant of her surroundings and she likely welcomes that. Her mind is protecting her from her hurt and her very real fear of her stepfather and what he’ll eventually do to her.”
“What can I do?” Donovan asked helplessly.
Tears burned the edges of his eyes. He blinked and it was like rubbing sand in his eyes. His emotions were raw. His heart was shattered. It was his fault Eve was like this. It was his fault this had happened. If only he’d done things differently. If only he hadn’t been so determined to shield her. He’d made the biggest mistake of his life by not trusting in her. He didn’t deserve her trust because he hadn’t offered it in return. He hadn’t wanted her to know anything of his plans. Stupidly, he’d thought he could fix the problem with her none the wiser and then present her with a fait accompli and they’d live happily ever after.
He, the smart one, the supposed brains of the entire operation.
He was the biggest dumbass in the world. He’d been thinking with his heart instead of using his greatest asset. Not his physical strength. Not his training. His intelligence. His mind. And Eve had paid dearly for his fuckup.
“You can’t torture yourself, Van,” Maren said quietly. “It does neither you nor her any good. You have to be strong for her. You have to make her want to come back. You have to convince her that you love her, that you didn’t betray her. And you have to be patient and wait for as long as it takes for her to want to crawl out of the hole she’s buried herself in. Because there, she’s safe. Nothing can hurt her. But the real world? That can destroy her and she well knows it.”
“So I just sit here and do nothing,” Donovan said bitterly.
“No,” Maren refuted. “You talk to her. Surround her with her family. You, Travis, and Cammie. Be persistent. Don’t allow her to crawl back into that shell once the medication starts to wear off and she becomes more aware of her surroundings. Then more than ever is when you have to press. Because when the medication wears off and she doesn’t have that balm, she’ll retreat in other ways. The mind is a very intricate thing and it will go to great lengths to protect itself. If you allow it, she’ll find a way to retreat even without the medication. So you surround her with your love. With Cammie and Travis’s love. Present a united front. Show her that you’re family. The four of you. And don’t treat her gently, Van. I know your instinct will be to baby her. You won’t want to cause her any distress. You’ll back off at the first sign that she’s upset. But you can’t do that. You have to show her tough love and bully her if that’s what it takes.”
“And make her hate me more than she already does,” Donovan said bleakly.
“No. You show her how very much you love her by not letting her go.”
Donovan scrubbed a hand through his hair and Maren hugged him tightly.
“She’ll get through this, Van. Just like Shea did. Nathan went through hell. He wondered a hundred times during the time Shea was recovering if he’d ever get her back. But love did it. His love. He didn’t give up, and neither will you. And just like Shea found her way back to Nathan, so too will Eve find her way back to you and Travis and Cammie. With three people who love her as much as y’all do, how can she not? Not to mention the rest of us. We’re a force to be reckoned with, as Shea can attest,” she added with a laugh. Then her expression grew more serious. “I love you dearly, Van. I love you all. Even before I married Steele, you were my family even though I have a family of my own whom I love fiercely. I will be here if you need me. All you have to do is call. No matter what time, day or night. Steele and I both will be here. I hope you know that.”
Donovan hugged her back, burying his face in her hair and just holding on as grief washed through him. She squeezed back hard, as if she knew just how tenuous his grip on his control was.
“I love you too,” Donovan said gruffly. “And thank you, Maren. It seems you’ve had a hand in saving all our asses at one time or another, but this is different. This is my life. More important than any mission I’ve ever gone on or ever will.”
She smiled and cupped his jaw as she drew away. “Be strong for her, Van. And tough. Don’t baby her. Just love her and be there when she finally breaks. Because she will break. It’ll get worse before it gets better. When the medication wears off and she comes back to her reality and remembers everything, she’ll break and you’ll have to be here to pick up the pieces and help her through it by loving her and convincing her of that love.”
“Thanks,” Donovan said again.
Maren walked away and Donovan turned his attention back to Eve’s bedside where she slept, seemingly peaceful. But he knew that underneath it all, nightmares lurked. And sleep was the only thing keeping hell at bay.
EVE struggled from the heavy fog that enveloped her like a blanket. It was odd. She didn’t feel as . . . She struggled with what word to describe it. But she felt lighter somehow. Her veins didn’t feel as though mud sludged through them, weighting her down and making her senseless and unaware. Where was she?
She grappled with her memory, trying to piece together anything that made . . . sense.
Bits and pieces came back to her like random photos flashing on a video monitor. Walt. His threats. And then nothing. She remembered staring sightlessly from a small window to a garden that badly needed tending. The sun hurting her eyes and her shutting them, only wanting to escape her reality.
But now? She opened her eyes, puzzled by how difficult a task it was, and when she did all she saw was white. It took her a moment to realize she was lying flat on her back and she was staring up at the ceiling. Then she became aware of the low murmur of voices.
Was it them? Were they coming back to put her back into the fog? She tried to summon a protest, not wanting the numbness any longer. At first it had been welcome. But why? She couldn’t remember why she preferred the sense of nothingness.
“Evie? Evie, are you awake?”
Cammie! Dear God, had they taken Cammie too?
And then it all came crashing back, exploding into her mind. Everything. Donovan’s betrayal. Walt forcing her vehicle off the road. The plane trip and Walt taking her to his cabin. His demands. His threats. His promise that no matter what, he’d have Travis and Cammie back with or without her cooperation. She’d left Travis and Cammie with Donovan, fully believing that no matter his feelings for her—that she didn’t matter—that he at least cared for her siblings and that he would protect them. Had she been wrong about that just as she’d been wrong about so much else?